REVIEW: Glorious Bill Cunningham New York Captures the Face of the City, and Sometimes Its Feet

Movieline Score:

Long before "street-fashion photographer" was even a job description -- before the Sartorialist first spotted a pocket square folded just so, before Tommy Ton even knew what a platform shoe was -- there was Bill Cunningham's regular New York Times photo-column, "On the Street," a weekly feature capturing the range of looks and combinations found on the sidewalks of New York. Cunningham's eye might be attracted by the recurrence of the color red, for example, or a dozen women wearing some variation of a black suede ankle boot. If Cunningham's weekly photo-essays are catnip for people who care about fashion, they're indispensable for people who don't: The French, wisely, believe it's important to have at least a glancing interest in fashion to be culturally literate, and on that score, "On the Street" neatly fulfills the minimum weekly requirement and then some.

But until recently, few outside the fashion world had any idea who Bill Cunningham was, what he looked like, or what his philosophy of fashion (or of photography, for that matter) might be. Richard Press' glorious documentary Bill Cunningham New York pulls the curtain back -- at least as far as it will ever go. Press has been working on the picture for 10 years; he spent 8 of those getting the eighty-something photographer, who covers the city by Schwinn bicycle, to agree to the project. Cunningham is an impish subject, half compliant and half reticent. But what Press comes up with in the end isn't just a portrait of individual eccentricity. Its larger subject is the way one man, just by being alive to what's around him, has created a vast, detailed anthropological record of how New Yorkers present, and feel about, themselves.

Almost no one, not even his closest friends, seem to know much about where Cunningham came from. The Bill Cunningham of today, as Press' camera captures him, is a sprightly gent whose years in New York haven't diminished his upper-crusty-sounding New England accent. One of the movie's interviewees, Cunningham's longtime friend Annie Flanders -- the founding editor of Details magazine, which regularly featured Cunningham's photos in its early years -- suggests that Cunningham may have come from a society family, though she doesn't know for sure. If you know anything about old Yankee families, Cunningham's own style of dressing confirms that: By day, he favors rumpled pants, comfy-looking shoes and a plain blue cotton jacket, which he first saw on Parisian street sweepers and began purchasing in multiples. By night -- Cunningham also shoots society events for the Times -- he wears a plain black suit and a dark coat, but before mounting his bike, he dons a construction worker-style reflective safety vest. In the rain, Cunningham takes cover under a plastic poncho. In one of the movie's early moments, Press captures him spreading it across a file cabinet in the Times offices, the better to mend it with plastic tape. "Why buy a new one?" he asks rhetorically. "They're going to tear anyway. It's wasteful."

Cunningham may not think much about what he wears, but he finds a great deal of pleasure in noticing what others do. He was a successful milliner in the '50s, whose clients included the likes of Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, although those particular two didn't interest him much. "They didn't have style," he says, with a casual dismissiveness that somehow doesn't come off as unkind.

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  • Richard says:

    Well done Stephanie, you are consistently entertaining and fascinating with your insights. I always enjoy reading your work. I cannot wait for your next review. All the best.

  • matt says:

    bill is simply the best! thanks for giving him some well deserved dues!

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